Dr Michael Donnelly reviews the last meeting of the Stormont Health Committee and warns that the scale of the Covid calamity in our care homes is nothing to be proud of.

The Chair declared the meeting as quorate and, as Gaeilge, welcomed all to the meeting in the Seanad or on social mediae. The first discussion was to be on impact on children during the pandemic and he introduced stakeholders: Alicia Toal CEO, Voice of Young People in Care; Kathleen Toner, Fostering Network; and Michelle James, Barnardo’s.

There was concern that there had been too much focus on hospitals. Stakeholders were concerned about internet access for children in care which should be risk-assessed. There was concern about a second and third surge and the need for amendments. There were 2,700 fostering who are grappling with emerging IT, emotional health and trauma information. 

The committee went on to consider the effects on travel with the assistance of Ms Elaine Colgan, Chief of Staff to the Chief Medical Officer who mentioned the evidence base and scientific data and R (London) and Republic of Ireland passenger health locator. However, in Northern Ireland data would be collected online for arrivals by UK Border Force which may not talk to the Irish system and thus those arriving from RoI might hide their origins of travel.

While the contact tracing systems might talk to each other via the Memo of Understanding between North and South, Paula Bradshaw (Alliance) was concerned about the recent repatriation of Romanians from her constituency.

There was concern that the Common Travel Area would allow entry from GB which had the second highest death rate in Europe. Alan Chambers (UUP) was concerned about the supposed index case who had travelled from northern Italy to Belfast via Dublin Airport.   There was concern about people from GB coming across the Common Travel Area. It was said that details would not be finalised until 08 June. Travellers from France were not expected though exemptions had been made for Channel Tunnel workers.

The roll out of tracing in England was criticised. Orlaith Flynn (SF) wanted to know who would carry out the physical checks. Pat Sheehan (SF) felt there was a loophole in that north-south information was not shared. There were concerns about east-west and the use of the Border Force and why was it not health officials?

Pat Sheehan felt that we had health devolved and should be developing our own elements and Alan Chambers wanted to see best practice but Pat Sheehan felt a coach and horses could be driven through what had been outlined. The committee decided to defer until next week.

After lunch another Statutory Rule was considered with Nigel McMahon, Chief Environmental Health Officer, testifying in relation to shop openings and traffic. Graveyards have been reopened, church services, recycling centres, garden centres, auction houses, drive-in cinemas but what was the scientific data for R? How was the Work Health Organisation advice on community engagement being followed?

Gerry Carroll (PBP) raised the effects of the restrictions on barbers and tanning parlours, garden centres and mixed retailers such as Matalan which had been criticised. 

Footnote: NISRA report  respiratory deaths not recognising that this is a mult-organ disease. NISRA revealed last week that they were adding another previously unreported deaths in care homes to the deaths figure, bringing the total to 705 registered to Covid-19  (up to 22May).  

More than half of these deaths took place in our care homes.

NISRA sends its stats to Wales for coding instead of saving time coding them locally as they used to. Hence over a week’s delay in producing figures.

Some DUP politicians are commending  themselves for our low death rate of 26 per 100,000 and think that all was done to protect our care homes from a novel virus even though its effects were well-signposted before it got to us from the experience of  China, South Korea, Singapore, Thailand, Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Portugual and England.

Are we really that parochial that we can shrug off the fact that 53.1 per cent of deaths occurred in our care homes not to mention our poor response on test, track and quarantine by quasi-experts?

There is a Reaper, whose name is Death...He reaps the bearded grain...And the Flowers that grow between  Henry Longfellow.

Dr Michael Donnelly MB, BCh, BAO is a clinical epidemiologist.